Last April, I spent some time in West Africa and ended up in Kumasi, central Ghana, during the celebration of the 20th anniversary of what the locals refer to as the “enstoolment” of the current Ashanti king, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II. Yes, enstoolment, as opposed to enthronement as the Ashanti people have a Golden Stool as a symbol of unity and power. This celebration was probably the most colorful event I have ever seen as all the local dignitaries attended the ceremony wearing traditional garments, most of them featuring vibrant hues and intricate patterns.
The Ashanti people (also called Asante) is the largest ethnic group in Ghana and had a significant role in the history of the country. The Asante state emerged in the Central Part of modern Ghana in late 17th century as a union of a few Akan clans clustered around Kumasi. It dominated the politics and trade (including the slave trade) of the Gold Coast (now Ghana) until it was defeated by the British in 1901, following the war of the Golden Stool. Ashanti was one of the few African states that seriously resisted European colonizers, and in 1935, the British granted the Ashanti self-rule sovereignty. After the independence of Ghana from the British in 1957, the Ashanti Kingdom survived as a constitutionally protected, so-called “traditional state” in union with the Republic of Ghana.
Interestingly, the title of king is not a birth right for the Ashanti. The senior female of the king’s lineage nominates the eligible males and after consultation with the elders, a final candidate is selected. (She is prohibited from picking one of the King’s children.) It seems to me that having a senior female replace the process of picking candidates from political parties would make many countries better off!
In any case, the King had served for 20 years so it was time for a party and there was much to celebrate. Chiefs and sub-chiefs of the various Ghanian ethnic groups, head of states of Ghana and of some friendly nearby countries were all there to pay their respect to the 16th occupant of the Golden Stool. The ceremony was held at the Manhya Palace and the most exciting part of the event was probably to see the various chiefs arriving, most of them richly clad in luscious kente clothing and gold jewelry (Ghana was called the Cold Coast for a reason). (The dress from those coming from the northern part of the country –the King of the North obviously–were more subdued in their sartorial choice). Most of them arrived with an entourage who carried the chiefs’ own special throne-like chairs and, most importantly, their personal umbrellas. The temperature was well over 100 degrees and I eyed those large umbrellas enviously. They then all proceed in a long line to congratulate the king on his special day. Right outside the palace, the crowd seemed to be celebrating as well in front of the various images of the Ashanti king installed for the occasion.
The mere mention of Antarctica, often referred to as the frozen continent, evokes beautiful empty landscapes, icebergs, penguins and it is certainly all of that. But what I find even more fascinating about Antarctica is the “Antarctica treaty” signed in 1959 by 52 countries which states that Antarctica would be an area of international peace (with no weapons) and a zone of international cooperation for science (so no commercial activities and no research to enrich one country in particular). Later, the Madrid protocol, signed in 1991, requires total ecological protection for Antarctica. Just take a few minutes and try to imagine any such agreement being signed today!!! The only comparable agreement ever signed is probably the “moon treaty” in 1967.
Seeing the land that deserved such a status was a thrill beyond thrills even for someone who usually is attracted to locations beaming with people. Spending a few days in South Georgia and hanging out with the King penguins (see South Georgia British Penguins) in blizzardy weather was good preparation but nothing could quite compete with the mystique of Antarctica.
So here is my second and final post on my trip way, way down under, with a few images of the land of peace and science and its penguins, empty landscapes and icebergs. One can easily relate to Andrew Benton (an Australian explorer)’s description of Antarctica as being “the only place on earth that is still as it should be” (well, unless we let most of it melt.).
Of course, penguins are irresistible, and the three closely related species that we spent time with (or should I say who spent time with us) were the Gentoo, the Adelie and the Chinstrap penguins.
The Gentoo are the third-largest species of penguins after the emperor penguin and the king penguin. They sport a red-orange beak, matching colored pinkish feet, and a fairly long tail. We saw a number of Gentoo colonies, on land for mating or breeding. Gentoo penguins are quite progressive at parenting as they take turns for a month incubating the two eggs deposited by the mother. They are also skilled at infrastructure as they build nests of stones and collectively develop a “penguin highway”, a path through the snow that connects the sea and their nesting area.
The Adélie is the littlest species of penguin in the Antarctic. They are probably the most “tuxedo-looking” ones with a black back and head, white chest and belly, and white rings around the eyes.
The chinstrap penguin probably wins the prize for most goofy looks. Its name is obviously derived from the narrow black band under its head which makes it appear as if it were wearing a black helmet, or sporting a constant smile. Chinstrap penguins are amazing climbers and make their nest on top of rocks that one would certainly not expect them to be able to reach based on their appearance.
Landscapes are nothing but extraordinary in their bareness. They look like they have been sketched by pencil. And at last I was able to photograph a few people, though admittedly they end up looking a bit like ants.
I thought this might be an appropriate post for Halloween week-end as it is all about fun, costumes and getting dressed up. I was just in Japan (Kyoto and Tokyo) for a brief visit. As I arrived in Kyoto, I noticed that many women were wearing kimonos all over the city. I was somewhat surprised as I had been to Kyoto before and there were very few Japanese women wearing kimonos in the city (and if they were to do it, it would mostly be for special occasions). I also noticed that these outfits were much more colorful and less subdued than the Japanese kimonos one usually sees. Asking around, I was told that it had become very trendy for tourists (mostly Chinese but many others including non-Asians) to dress up in a kimono and walk around as best they could in geta (Japanese-style clogs). Kimono-dressed tourists were especially common in the beautiful temples of Kyoto where they were busy taking pictures of themselves, so a dress up version of selfies.
Initially I was not inclined to shoot these “fake” (a much-overused word these days) kimono wearers thinking that it was not the real Japan. But upon reflection I realized that this influx of dressed up tourists is a salient part of the real Japan these days and I decided to embrace it. So, I photographed women (and some men) in kimonos visiting various Kyoto landmark sites such as the Fushimi and Yasaka shrines and the Nanzen-ji Temple) as well as enjoying the Gion district and the Nishiki market. In Tokyo, I found kimono-clad women mostly at the Senso-ji temple also known as Asakusa Kannon. I also noticed that many find that the complete kimono experience must incorporate at least one ride on a traditional rickshaw.
As I mentioned in my previous post (Irish Travellers who No Longer Travel), the Irish Travellers had been nomadic for generations, traveling the countryside in horse-drawn carts and wagons, presumably because of the limited demand for work at any one place. Now, facing pressure from the government, they have mostly settled in halting sites, areas of concrete slab where they can locate their caravans.
This change in lifestyles did not come easily, particularly for the men who found themselves with very little to do. The unemployement rate is high in the Travellers’ community and the suicide rate is said to be seven times higher than in the population in general. The one thing that seems to provide the men life satisfaction is to be able to keep horses.
Horses have long been an integral part of Irish Travellers’ life and culture. Not only were horses the Traveller’s primary means of transportation, but they were also an additional way to make a little money when sold at horse fairs. Though no longer a means of transportation, horses are still being traded at the numerous fairs held all over the country. The Travellers also enjoy racing their horses using a two-wheeled cart called a sulky (as in harness racing). There have been calls in recent years by politicians and animal welfare groups to introduce a complete ban on sulky racing, which the Travellers’ community are fighting vigorously.
But keeping a horse in today’s civilization can be challenging. Make-shift stables are built at halting sites and adjacent fields can provide grazing, though renting a field is expensive. Yet, the Travellers dearly want to maintain that part of their culture, and want to share this passion with their sons. (Dealing with the horses still seems to be primarily a male activity in the Traveller’s community.)
Most boys are given a miniature pony which they learn to ride as early as age two. They are also responsible to take care of their animal, so when you visit a halting site, it is common to see young boys busy feeding, washing, and grooming their animals and sometimes taking them for a ride, just as their fathers do. Their pride for their horses is obvious, but was made it even more salient for me was when a young man kept asking me to see the photos I had taken of him and his horse and rejecting every one of them as “no good”. Asking him what he did not like, he volunteered that he was happy with his own appearance but thought the image of his horse was not sufficiently flattering.
It appears that strong bond between the Travellers and their horses is a part of their life to which they will strongly cling. As Ned, the father of nine beautiful children told me, “We are not traveling anymore, but we are still Travellers and we need our horses. It gives us something to do.” And it gives a meaning to their lives.
A few years ago, a dear friend and fellow photographer told me he was going to photograph the “Irish Travellers” and asked whether I would like to come along. My first reaction was to wonder why he thought I would be interested in photographing a tap dance troupe (like Riverdance) given my usual focus on vanishing cultures. Luckily, I tried to educate myself a little before answering him, (saving myself from embarrassment) and found out that the Irish Travellers are in fact an ethnic group and belong to a culture that could indeed be disappearing. Though I could not make it at the time, this year, as I spent part of my summer in London, I decided to hop up to the heart of Western Ireland and meet some of the Travellers.
For those like me who did not know about the Irish Travellers (and I will feel better if there are many of you), here are a few facts about them. Also called the Travelling People or Tinkers, they have been nomadic for generations, travelling the countryside in horse-drawn carts and wagons, presumably because of the limited demand for work at any one place. Though they were initially known for their tinware, they ended up doing any work that came their way: cleaning chimneys, buying and selling horses and donkeys, picking crops, sharpening knives, and whatever was needed to survive. Most families traveled and camped on the roadside, seldom remaining in one place for more than a couple of weeks. Of course, “gypsies” and Roma” come to mind when hearing about this lifestyle, but recent genetic testing has shown that the Travellers are native to Ireland.
The Travellers began to suffer in the 1970s as the demand for their work decreased significantly. With plastic replacing tin and the development of larger urban centers, the Travellers started to camp near cities on the roadside creating complaints among the locals. A movement emerged to settle travelling families on “sites” where they would have basic services and the children could go to school. Today the Travellers are no longer nomads, the vast majority live in houses or in caravans (trailers) on official “halting” sites. Although there are still approximately 30,000 living in Ireland they are clearly at the bottom of Ireland’s social and economic ladder.
I was curious to see how this evolution to a stationary life was working for them, particularly for the young ones who haven’t been on the road. Will they still identify with their culture? Of course, I was only able to spend a brief time with them so I certainly do not have full answers, but it was great to finally spend a little time with a new generation of Irish Travelers.
Children are easy to find at the halting sites. The Travellers are religious (Padre Pio has a strong presence there), and large families are the norm. My last day was spent with two families that had 8 children each, and in one of them, the oldest child was 10 and the youngest just 4 weeks old. I also met a 52 year-old man who had 29 grandchildren and a grandmother with 79!
The halting sites are basically concrete slabs on which residents can locate their caravans, so there is very little green on the sites per se. To earn a little money, some of the Travellers collect scrap metal and old cars kept near their caravans, and these junk heaps often become the childrens’ playgrounds. Yet, the Travellers have also kept their connections to nature by keeping horses nearby (which they also sell at Horse Fairs), raising dogs, especially greyhounds, and there are LOTS of puppies, and in some case also chickens. Boxing has been a sport where the Travellers have excelled even representing their country at the Olympics so punching bags are also a common sight.
Probably the most striking thing to notice about the children is how clearly gender roles are defined even for the youngest of children. When being photographed, the young boys always show their tight fists and take a fighting position. The girls quickly take a provocative pose, putting their hands on their hips and pouting their lips, (looking at a 2 year-old taking this pose make you want to burst into both laughs and tears). Most of the girls have long hair, and wear jewelry and make-up starting at a very young age. Though they look very girly, they seem just as good at boxing as the boys.
In this short visit, it was clear that the Travellers are a proud group who value their identity but who are struggling to foresee their future (and it is probably not tap dancing J). More on their struggle (plus horses!) in my next post.
In my last blog, I mentioned that pollution and economic struggles are significant problems in Dhaka (Life in Dhaka). Little did I know that the air I was breathing in the city would seem pristine compared to that at my next stop, the brick factories outside of Dhaka.
While driving out of Dhaka, one cannot help but noticing many long thin chimneys on both sides of the road. When told by my local guide that they were brick factories, I asked him why there were so many. “Because Bangladesh is growing fast and needs cheap building materials and we know how to make bricks as we have been doing it for years”, he answered. Curious about how this was done, I asked if we could stop and have a look. It quickly became clear that the way they are making bricks now is probably the same way it has been done for decades, namely all by hand, brick by brick.
During the dry season when there is no work to do in the fields, workers of all ages come from rural parts of Bangladesh, to earn a little money in the brickyards. They often stay for months, living in houses built in the yard, often with their families. The work is backbreaking and exhausting, to say the least.
One can find clusters of men dealing with different stages of the process. One group is busy extracting mud from which the bricks are made, mixing it with water to keep it workable. The mud is then transported by wheelbarrows to another group of people, the brick makers. This is where the mud is put in wooden molds to give the bricks the desired shape. The brick makers work extremely fast as they are paid per brick made.
The next phase is the baking of the bricks. Here a group of workers brings the raw bricks to the kiln to be baked by balancing as many as sixteen lose bricks in two piles on top of their head. When the baking is done and the bricks have cooled off, another group carries them out the same way. This was mesmerizing to watch. In one of the factories I visited, workers from both groups (ingoing and outgoing) were using the same path so would basically be intertwined all the while balancing their heavy loads. This is a human factory in its most primitive form. The entire process is done with workers wearing their own clothes, and no special protective gear of any sort. They are constantly breathing an irritating red dust, hours on end. All this done for about $25-30/week depending on the worker’s speed.
The red dust also spreads to nearby towns and villages, potentially creating health problems for all. Legally, no brick factory can be put up within 5km of residential areas. Yet everywhere across the country, bricks are produced close to villages and cities.
My last post was about Odisha’s fabulous coastline (BayofBengal) and how it is used by fishermen and pilgrims alike. But Odisha has other known attractions, namely its rich cultural heritage and the fact that it is the 3rd most populous Indian state in terms of tribal population, home to over 60 different ethnic groups. Until last year, Odisha had restricted photography in tribal areas by foreign visitors. Some of these restrictions are now being relaxed giving us a great opportunity to see and interact with these original inhabitants. In my brief visit I was able to meet with just a small number of these tribes, and in this post I share a few of my more memorable encounters.
But before we get to the specific tribes I met it is essential to also discuss the local art. The state of Odisha has a well-developed artistic tradition reflected in its handicrafts, painting, carvings, music and dance. A lot of it is of interest, but it was a dance performance that particularly caught my attention. The dance is called GotiPua which I knew very little about before seeing it (there never seems to be enough time before the trip to become as fully informed as I would like to be). Before the performance we had briefly seen what looked to me like a group of young girls who were busy preparing for the performance but were also killing time playing with a yellow truck which seemed like an unusual choice of toy for a group of young girls. At the end, I asked the dance instructor for the age of these beautiful girls that had just performed and was told that they were boys who dress as female. In fact, the word GotiPua means “single boy” and this is how the dance has been performed for centuries to praise the gods Jagannath and Krishna.
For the occasion, the boys wove flowers in their hair, used Kajal (a traditional black-liner) on their eyes, a bindi on their forehead and sandalwood paste to adorn their face with traditional patterns. Their traditional dress is colorful and complemented by an apron-like cloth worn around the legs and lots of beaded jewelry. The dances are beautiful to watch and features impressive acrobatic skills.
The first two ethnic groups I met were both from the Kondhs tribe (the Khutia Kondh and the Dongria Kondh) which is one of the main tribal groups of the area. Women from the Khutia clan have very distinctive facial tattoos. They were very welcoming and we visited a number of their villages.
In contrast, the Dongria women were somewhat harder to interact with, at least for me. I later learned that for a decade, the 8,000-plus Dongria Kondh have lived under the threat of a mining company which hoped to extract the bauxite that lies under the surface of the hills on which the Dongria clan live and worship. This might explain some of their reticence to interact with foreigners. Dongria women have distinctive jewelry, tattoos and hairstyles. Women wear many rings through their ears and three through their noses. The girls wear clips in their hair and rings and beads around their necks.